In the first such case in California, state authorities have moved to revoke the medical licenses of two Southern California doctors who they say treated hundreds of AIDS sufferers with an ineffective medicine produced in a crude laboratory at one physician's Villa Park home.
Four patients died after receiving the treatment, including a Los Angeles floral designer who lay immobile in his bathtub for several days. Officials said they cannot prove the drug, called Viroxan, caused the deaths, although they may have been hastened by it. They accused the doctors of treating AIDS patients "like guinea pigs."
In documents released this week, the Medical Board of California brought civil charges of gross negligence, incompetence, dishonesty and other offenses against Dr. Valentine Birds of North Hollywood and Dr. Stephen Herman of Villa Park.
Herman was arrested by state investigators in January, 1990, after selling 10 vials of the medicine to an undercover agent for $300, authorities said. The doctor, who said he developed the substance from plants, also faces 16 criminal counts in Orange County related to the advertising and sale of Viroxan.
The promotion and sale of useless AIDS treatments is widespread in the United States, medical experts say. Hucksters have taken advantage of patients' desperation to sell them purported remedies ranging from hydrogen peroxide to pills containing white blood cells.
Some researchers believe that "quackery is the standard of practice for AIDS--that's how bad it is," said William T. Jarvis, executive director of the National Council Against Health Fraud, based in Loma Linda.
Dr. John H. Renner, director of the Consumer Health Research Institute, a Missouri-based clearinghouse for information on medical products, said his group has identified more than 120 phony AIDS drugs being marketed around the country, including through the mail and on toll-free telephone numbers.
At a recent scientific meeting, he said, it was estimated that the average AIDS patient spends upward of $2,000 a year on phony AIDS medicines.
However, at least one AIDS patient, a doctor from Laguna Beach, said he would take Viroxan today if it were available.
Don Hagan, who retired from his family practice in 1988 because of an AIDS-related illness, said he was introduced to Herman by one of his own AIDS patients who had improved dramatically after taking Viroxan.
The man's T-cell count, the measure of one's ability to fight infection, rose consistently--higher than he had ever witnessed in hundreds of other AIDS patients.
Hagan said that after he attended a presentation at Herman's home, he began to see Viroxan as a chance to buy time in his own life. He said Herman never claimed that the treatment would cure cancer and was open about some problems people had experienced with it.
Herman also admitted that it was inappropriate for him to charge for the medicine but said that he had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money on research and sought only contributions, Hagan said. Herman said he would not withhold the drug from anyone who wanted it, regardless of ability to pay, Hagan said.
"It didn't bother me in the least that it may be a lemon extract," he said. "Much of medicine is based on herbs and plants. Digitalis is a plant. Penicillin is a mold."
Hagan said he is saddened that "our system is going after a person who may have been on to something that is quite unique."
Hagan said several people in Orange County are still taking Viroxan, obtained through Europe where it is now being produced.
State officials said one of the AIDS patients that Birds and Herman treated with Viroxan was Los Angeles floral designer Mark Snider, who died in November, 1989.
Investigators said Birds initially treated Snider with typhoid vaccine, despite a recommendation from an AIDS clinic that he receive AZT, a drug that has been shown to prolong the lives of a majority of people with AIDS and AIDS-related conditions.
Without recommending AZT, Birds urged Snider to see Herman at his Orange County home, where Herman began injecting the patient with Viroxan, state investigators said.
Snider later complained to Birds that he was experiencing "severe breathing problems and was acutely ill" after three days of nausea and vomiting, officials said. But Birds gave him more Viroxan and taught him to inject himself with the drug, they said.
About 10 days later Snider was found immobile in his tub, where he apparently had been for several days. Despite several phone calls from Snider's friends beginning at 2:30 in the morning, Birds did not call for an ambulance until almost 9 a.m., authorities said.
Snider was admitted to Queen of Angels Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center showing signs of meningitis, blood poisoning and dehydration, and died four days later.